Six months before the pandemic, I attended a conference of the European Buddhist Union. It included a workshop about online dharma led by an American who worked with the youth network of Thich Nhat Hahn’s Plum Village sangha. I think he despaired at the lack of tech experience of our mostly middle-aged/older gathering of well-meaning Buddhists and wondered how on earth we’d ever appeal to younger age groups. I came away inspired by that workshop and with ideas for how we could use technology differently. It could be a way to make practice accessible and maybe attractive to new people. More immediately for us, it could allow people who live far away from our centres or for whom the centres were inaccessible to sit with us virtually, at least part of the time. At that time, I envisaged it starting slowly, maybe using Zoom once a month to start with to see how it worked for those in the zendo and those at home. It seemed worth a try but there was no obvious urgency about it.
Fast forward 6 months and, with the zendo closed, we made the switch to Zoom sitting far more smoothly and comprehensively than any of us would have thought possible or envisaged the need for. Zoom quickly embedded itself in the practice life of many of us. Not all – some sangha members didn’t make the move to Zoom, not finding it a comfortable replacement for sitting in person. For others, Zoom created new sitting possibilities.
I have more reason to appreciate Zoom than most. Catching Covid at the very start of the pandemic and taking a year to recover from Long Covid, I spent months housebound and then pretty much bedbound, needing to move away from Liverpool to be cared for by my parents for three months. I could barely make it from one room to the next so even had the zendo been open I couldn’t have made it there. And yet Zoom meant that even on my worst weeks I never went without sitting with others. Even if I could only sit up for a minute to see people’s faces before doing my ‘sits’ lying down, it mattered immensely to me. It helped provide a structure and support for my ongoing sitting addiction. For months it was also the only time I saw anyone outside my immediate family.
Zoom also provided a way to introduce more people to the practice and the sangha. Colin Salmon and I have been running the introduction sessions throughout the pandemic. It was a delight to see so many new people, from all over the UK and beyond, joining us to find out more about meditation, Buddhism and Zen. It is even more delightful that many stayed and have become integral members of the sangha even without us meeting in person. Zoom made that possible. Being able to host the introduction sessions despite my illness was personally invaluable to me. I have a strong need to be useful and doing something. Being able to keep running the sessions, even if it meant needing to spend the rest of the day lying down with my eyes closed, gave me something I could contribute through when I’d lost my ability to work or take care of myself. Without that, my illness would have been much harder to deal with.
So I have endless gratitude for Zoom, for my laptop, for the internet and for all of you sitting on your own devices (Zoom needs people to Zoom with!). And yet I still miss sitting with other people, with other bodies in the same room. It will have been 17 months since I last sat in person with anyone. That seems an almost inconceivable amount of time seeing as I never missed a week in the zendo before the pandemic. Zoom is wonderful and I’ve been surprised how powerful it has been. Yet I still want, crave to sit with you in person. Soon we will. I will bound up the zendo stairs with a big grin on my face. It might not be Covid-safe to pounce on you all to give you all a big hug, but I am sure that is what I’ll be doing in my head during that first sit together. I suspect there will be tears dripping down my face too. Thank you for being there on Zoom and thank you in advance for the chance to sit with you in person again.